Seeing through it…

Here in the UK, it’s ‘Bake Off’ season (a TV contest for home bakers) and once again we’re being shown the importance of the ‘windowpane test’. This is a way of discovering whether dough has been sufficiently kneaded – if it can be stretched to the point that light can shine through it, it indicates that the gluten is well developed and the dough is ready to rise.

photo source http://pinchmysalt.com

It strikes me that the same can apply to us. It can be the people whom life knocks about, and who are stretched to unimagined points, that can end up with light shining through them.
Stories come to mind of people who were abused, helping others seeking freedom; people who’ve known what it is to be in need, advocating a better state of affairs for the disadvantaged; people familiar with disability or depression, offering empathy and empowerment to those facing difficulties.

As a believer, I trust that God will never stretch me beyond my limit. While we cannot always choose our circumstances, we can decide how we react.
Truth is, after months of physical and emotional challenges, I feel like a bit of pummelled dough and I find that my responses are variable!
In my better moments, I take a step back, and see the whole picture with small shafts of light shining through.
In my darker moments, I struggle to see clearly, until I realise that God the Master Baker is at work, rising from the ingredients of everyday life.

Trevor Dennis, retired Dean of Chester Cathedral and author of The Three Faces of Christ, has likened God to a baker:

My God was in the middle of baking bread and up to her elbows in flour, and she came out to just to see me. I didn’t know she wore a pinny!
She came right up to me and gave me a great big hug. Like no hug I’d ever had before. And that was my judgement day. I’ve never been the same since. And I still have the marks of God’s floury hands on my back. Everyone does up here.

Dough is transformed by kneading. It responds to warm firm handing, so I’m going to see it through, hoping that God’s light will shine through it all…

Truth is… Remember that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.  (I Corinthians 10:13)

Nestle or wrestle…

I became a mother in the 1980s when ‘skin to skin’ contact (where a newborn is immediately placed on their parent’s chest) wasn’t the norm.
Nowadays, it is widely recognised as a beneficial practice as it promotes a baby’s development and wellbeing.
Evidence backs up what’s right under our nose – that a deep bonding results when a baby has skin to skin contact by lying on its mother’s breast or father’s chest.

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As a believer, I find myself reflecting on my feelings about God.
In Christianity, God may be known as ‘Abba’, the Aramaic word for a father with whom there is a close relationship.
Truth is, I never had a close relationship with my father, but I see some wonderful fathers around.
The dad patiently teaching his son to ride a bike, demonstrating, encouraging, and steering him in the right direction.
The daddy attentively listening to his daughter upset by a nasty experience, and helping her find courage for tomorrow.
The dad inviting his offspring to share their worries, and helping them to work out what’s theirs to sort, and what isn’t their responsibility.

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Necessity meant that I had to be a very responsible child, and although this developed strengths, my default position can trip me up. I can find myself sorting out problems that aren’t mine to solve, or worrying about situations beyond my control.
However, if I pause in the midst of my striving and anxieties, I sense that God, Abba, is longing for me to experience an intimacy in my soul.
We are not designed to be fiercely independent. Instead, we are called to experience the liberation of interdependence and dependence. It’s about recognising where our responsibilities begin – and end. It’s about doing our best, and letting God do the rest.

Just as a baby is soothed by resting on the breast or chest, so God calls us to nestle, not wrestle.
If we can let ourselves be found by God and sense the warmth of true acceptance, if we can be still and become attuned to the Father’s heartbeat, then we will be touched by Abba love.

Truth is…  As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me (Psalm 131:2)

This Beautiful Fantastic

Truth is, I lag behind when it comes to films. Deafness means I have to wait until I can watch a dvd with subtitles, and I’ve only just discovered 2016’s This Beautiful Fantastic. It’s the story of a young woman, Bella, who is under threat of eviction unless she attends to her overgrown garden. In the process of confronting the issues that lie behind her horticultural neglect, relationships blossom in unexpected ways.

Bella lives with OCD, and at the beginning of the film we see her life dictated by routines.

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But she discovers that there is more to life when she expands her horizons and starts to do things differently.
The storyline made me turn over some ground in my own mind.
Our choices can imprison us. Regret, reluctance, and resignation are powerful jailers. But we have a choice, to live in their shadows, or to begin to free ourselves from their constraints.

In the film, we see Bella begin to tackle the undergrowth in her garden by taking a pair of secateurs and making a single snip. Removing one entangling tendril seems insignificant amid the overgrowth surrounding her, but the point is that she’s made a start.

At first sight one character looks likely to lend a hand, but because he has a pollen allergy, he’s restricted to providing Bella with restorative meals and encouraging words.
Ironically, aid comes from an unlikely character, her cantankerous neighbour. However, rather than providing practical help, it’s his passion and knowledge of gardening that give her inspiration and energy.

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There are parallels here in life as a believer.
God doesn’t step in and do instant makeovers of our lives. Instead, God catches our imaginations, and nudges us to tackle the unchecked attitudes and behaviours that result in our entanglement.
It’s about partnership, and when we actively choose to respond to the Spirit, we will find that God offers us timely, enabling sustenance and encouragement.

Of course, the garden transformation would have been an easy job if Bella had hired someone else to do it, but this is a story of personal development and the difference that clearing away stifling undergrowth and entangling overgrowth can make.
So I’m choosing to let the Light in, that I may grow and blossom…

Truth is… Keep your roots deep in him  Colossians 2:7

 

Speed, distance, time…

One of my offspring recently recounted a hair-raising journey following the directions of sat-nav.
It had sent them by the shortest route, which in this case turned out to be a practically unnavigable track.

It made me reflect on how technology has changed route planning. Destinations are postcodes rather than place names, and routes are revealed at the touch of a screen rather than thumbing through map pages and seeing a network of possibilities.

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Sat nav will automatically send us by the quickest or shortest route. However, if we take the same approach to life and rush along the fast lane, we may miss ‘travelling mercies’. As the African proverb says:

If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk together

When we constantly look to overtake, we distance ourselves from positive connections.
But if we draw alongside others, we will have opportunities to give and receive, and find purpose and meaning in life.

Likewise, when we look for short cuts from difficult situations or a tedious part of life’s journey, we distance ourselves from unexpected blessings.
Sat nav will often use single track roads as short cuts, with disastrous results, yet are we vastly different in our lives?
Having a single-track mind can blind us to possibilities or lead us to assume a right of way, and unless we stop in our tracks, a head on collision may well be around the corner.

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But I believe that just as sat-nav is constantly tracking our progress, so too is God.
Not in a vindictive way, but in clearing the way ahead. Just like sat-nav logs our position when we’ve taken a wrong turn and re-routes us, so too will God.
Sometimes getting lost and arriving somewhere later than expected is called ‘taking the scenic route’, but what we may have lost in time or speed, we will have gained in learning from the distance covered. So let’s be attentive to God’s nudges, and respond with due care and attention.

Truth is… “My thoughts” says the Lord “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours” Isaiah 55:8

The problem of pain…

At a tender age I was easily upset by cruelty, so wildlife programmes featuring suffering and a struggle for survival would make me cry.
A few days ago, these feelings resurfaced when I discovered a blue tit had fallen to its death in my backyard. Stunned, I stood and watched the nesting box from where it had fallen and made the shocking discovery that sparrows had invaded the box and ousted its residents.

As a child I wondered how camera crews making nature programmes could just stand inactive in the midst of suffering.

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Truth is, as an adult, I have also wondered how God can watch people struggling and apparently do nothing. I think the answer lies in the word ‘apparently’.

Sometimes we make unwise choices, other times we are unfortunately caught in the slipstream of other people’s destructive decisions, and all this can impact on our emotional wellbeing. Meanwhile our physical health, and the health of the earth, is a complex interaction of the variables of nature and nurture.

I believe that how we react to life, shapes our soul. We have a choice, to become bitter or better. Although we are not controlled by God, God is not unmoved by our folly and waits to be invited into the heart of the matter – in our souls.

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Inviting God in doesn’t mean our circumstances instantly change, but that our characters change and grow.
Soul growth is a slow process and requires the right conditions – honesty, silence, patience, and time.

John Ortberg writes:

“If you ask people who don’t believe in God why they don’t, the number one reason will be suffering.
If you ask people who believe in God when they grew most spiritually, the number one answer will be suffering.”

(Soul Keeping)

The good news is that nothing is news to God, and no situation and no one is beyond redemption.
In our souls we come home to God, so may we avoid being like the sparrows, who intent on feathering their nest with no regard to the blue tits, left a trail of destruction in pursuit of significance and security.

Truth is… Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him (Ephesians 3:17)

It’s all in the mix…

Apparently, the shortage of eggs that has accompanied covid-19, is because of a surge in home baking.
Even one of my offspring who doesn’t normally bake, has sent me a picture of a carrot cake, captioned ‘finally got round to using your recipe!’

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Recipes are guidelines. A list of ingredients followed by a set of instructions.

First step is to make sure we’ve got what it takes, or to tweak as necessary. It’s amazing what can result when we are flexible in our thinking.
Next step is start combining ingredients together. It’s at this stage that things don’t always go as expected. For example, adding eggs to a cake mix can cause it to curdle or ‘split’. But contrary to appearances, all is not lost, we just need to keep going.
Other times things don’t go according to plan, simply because we don’t follow the plan.
Maybe we skip a stage that seems unnecessary. Take sieving flour, it may feel pointless, but it loosens any clumps and allows us to gently fold it into the mix.
Then comes the baking for just the right amount of time.

This process reminds me of how life can feel. We have a plan. We prepare. We get off to a good start.
But when something happens that causes us to ‘split’, we can wonder if the situation is resolvable.

Paul, the writer of many New Testament letters, urges followers of Jesus not to fret or worry, but instead, pray.
To pray is to be honest with God. To be open about our hopes, and our disappointments; our deliberate wrong doings, and our mistakes; our doubts, and our delicate faith.

Truth is, I can sometimes be reluctant to hand over the mix to God, but when we do, everything starts to come together for good and we are changed in the process. Our priorities will be sifted, and our hardened attitudes and actions loosened.

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Then, with a gentle folding together of the unique ingredients that make us who we are, something good will emerge from the oven of life.

Truth is… A sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. (Philippians 4:7) 

 

Homing instinct…

A few weeks ago, I was very excited. I spotted a pair of sparrows exploring a nesting box in our garden, but my delight turned to disappointment when they appeared to reject the home on offer.
However, they’ve returned and settled! I like to think that having checked out alternatives, a secure and safe place to dwell has been recognised.

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It’s made me think how delighted our Creator must be, when having sought alternatives, we finally recognise our soul’s longing for God and come ‘home’.

Yet so often we ignore or misinterpret the yearnings of our soul.
We feel an emptiness – and so we fill our lives with the brightest and best we can afford (or not).
We sense a gap – and we attempt to plug it with successes.
We feel incomplete – and we look for fulfilment in relationships.
These things may be potentially life enhancing, but when they reach priority status in our lives, they cause us to topple. There’s an irony in the fact that the more we try to pack into our lives, be it possessions, successes or relationships, the emptier we become.

Truth is, I yearn recognition but however many ‘likes’ I may get, my ‘need’ isn’t met.
Of course it isn’t! It is only God, who can meet our true needs.
So how do we encounter God?
Simply, through honesty. If we have the courage to recognise our innermost feelings and thoughts, what is stagnant can be displaced by the life-giving water of God. Our thirst will be quenched, and as we feel more at home with God, we will be become our truer selves.
I am finding that when I allow God to show me the heart of the matter, liberation follows. I am freer from the clutch of predatory forces.

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To connect with God in our souls is to come home, and as I watch the birds flying in and out of the nesting boxes, it reminds me to connect with the homing instinct we all have in our souls. God is within each of us, waiting to offer us life in all its true fullness.

 

Truth is… I choose the God above all gods to shelter me… (Psalm 91:9)

Core strength…

With significant spinal fractures caused by brittle bones, and at risk of further fractures if I stumble or move awkwardly, it’s been suggested to me that I should get a balance board to improve my core strength.

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                                                       Photo credit: Nurture Collective

Physical core strength is stabilising, giving us good balance and preventing unnecessary falls.
Likewise, our mind and soul benefit from a strong foundation, as stability in our innermost being allows us to withstand the waves of life, rather than being knocked off balance.

Our life experiences shape our inner being. Our past can be enabling, or disabling, or typically a mix.
But whatever our lot, we have a choice. We can put energy into what we can change, or we can exhaust ourselves trying to alter what is beyond our power.

We can’t see our physical core, nor can we see the core of our inner being, but the stronger they are, the further the positive ripples of wellbeing extend.

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So what can we do to increase our soul strength?

As a believer, I find that the more honest I am with God, the stronger I become.
Like everyone, I am inclined to bury uncomfortable thoughts and unsettling fears. But if I recognise them in the presence of God’s liberating light and love, there is healing.
Healing is not about being a passive patient in God’s hands, but rather, a purposeful participant.
It’s about making the changes we need to make, in order to become more aligned with God.
Just as a balance board causes us to adjust our posture and build inner muscle strength, so honesty leads to redemption and restoration, and increases our soul strength.
We will gradually become more balanced, and wobble less.

Wholeness doesn’t mean being without scars. My fractures have healed, but I’m left with deformity, and so I have a choice: to wrap myself in cotton wool, or do everything I can to increase physical core strength and live life to the full.
So, balance board here I come, and as I wobble less and stand as tall as I can, I’ll look to strengthen my soul too…

Truth is… For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10)

A dog with a bone

While we can learn a lot from dogs, my Assistance Dog Marshall isn’t perfect. He’s a Spaniel, so he will always sniff out anything that he believes to be edible. For example…

Although covid-19 places me in strict isolation, I’m able to take a solitary walk Marshall in a nearby wood. He enjoys his time off-lead, and I’ve always trusted him to return to me when I blow my whistle.dog-whistle-metal-iron-pipe-wallpaper-previewSo last week I gave a blast, with the expectation he would immediately return from the undergrowth he’d disappeared into.
Imperfection number 1: No show. After several more blasts, he emerged with an enormous roasted bone in his mouth, complete with remains for gnawing. He carried his prize possession home, and by our outside bin I commanded him to ‘give’.
Imperfection number 2: He initially refused. He must have sensed the bone was going in the refuse. He didn’t realise that as his guardian, I know best. Delicious as the meaty bone may have seemed to him, I knew it would cause him inner upset.

Marshall’s misdemeanours are a reminder that we can make bad choices, and refuse to give up what we cling to. Truth is, I’ve clung to many things that are less than wholesome.
Like everyone, I have a deep-rooted longing for significance and security. I’ve wanted recognition, or efforts returned, or to be liked, and sometimes I’ve looked in the wrong places for these needs to be met.

I believe that as humans we are more than a body with a mind. We also have a soul, and if we neglect it, all will not be well. Our souls cry out for integration. As St Augustine said:

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.

It is within our souls that we discover God has our best interests at heart.
But just as Marshall needed to give me his bone so that he could then receive a more wholesome alternative, so we need to ‘drop’ what we cling to – all those things that give us false and empty nourishment.

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Photo credit: 2019 Paul Wilkinson Photography (Hearing Dogs for Deaf People)

Truth is… Listen closely to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the food that satisfies your soul. (Isaiah 55:2)

Pawsome priorities

My Assistance Dog, Marshall, lives in the present rather than fretting about what the future might hold. He doesn’t have a mind full of ‘what ifs’. Instead, he lives in a mindful way in the here and now.

Truth is, I can sometimes be like a ‘dog with a bone’, excessively ruminating over things. But Marshall reminds me of more awesome priorities:

He finds joy in the moment. Before covid-19 necessitated staying in, I didn’t really understand why he gets excited seeing passers-by.

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Now I know! Never underestimate the effect of connecting with others in a cheery way.

He doesn’t hide his need for affection and nudges me to ruffle his fur. It’s heart-warming to show our love for each other. The same applies to human relationships.

He soaks up the warmth of sunny days. If we absorb the warmth of others (kind gestures and encouraging words) the coldness with which we may treat ourselves, will be thawed.

He is attuned to others. When he senses someone is hurting, he comes alongside and offers a comforting gentle nuzzle. We can show empathy for others in quiet intuitive ways too.

He digs up what he’s buried – when he feels the moment has come. Recognising the right time for action, is important.

He never growls for the sake of it. Some battles aren’t worth fighting.

He finds pleasure in the simplest things, like walking in the woods, paddling in the stream, or playing with his pals. We too, need to take time for refreshing recreation.

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He is simply a dog. He doesn’t try to be anything other, nor does he make comparisons. We could save ourselves a lot of frustration and dissatisfaction, if we were simply ourselves.

He always greets me with exuberant enthusiasm, if we’ve ever been apart. We too, need to let others know that they really matter to us.

So let’s live life to the full, by learning any necessary life lessons from Marshall. It’s not for nothing that dogs have been called ‘man’s best friend’!

Truth is… Jesus said, “I have come that I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)

Photo credits: 2019 Paul Wilkinson Photography (Hearing Dogs for Deaf People)